Is It Too Early to Worry About Cliff Lee?

I’m in a pretty competitive fantasy baseball keeper league.  A few years ago I plucked Cliff Lee off the waiver wire after he made a few good starts. He went on to have one of the greatest seasons ever by a starting pitcher when he went 22-3 with a 2.54 ERA and 170 strikeouts. Needless to say, I kept him and to this day, he’s one of the greatest waiver wire pick ups in the history of baseball. Good for me. I did wait on Jose Bautista, though. Wish I had that back.

Anyway, I’m a little worried about my stalwart pitcher. I may be the only one, but I’d like to see if I’m crazy for my thoughts. Let’s find out.

I loved being a Yellow Dart while I was an Indian. Now I'm a Phillie and I walk batters again.

Let’s go back to a time where Clifton Phifer Lee was a young, wet-behind-the-ears big leaguer who was just trying to make it in the majors.  He was a 25 year old from Benton, Arkansas who came to the Indians via the Montreal Expos after they selected him out of the University of Arkansas in the 4th round of the 2000 draft.  Lee was a part of the very one-sided deal the Expos made to acquire Bartolo Colon and Tim Drew from Cleveland for Lee Stevens, Brandon Phillips, Grady Sizemore, and Lee.  In fact, that deal looks even worse now that I’ve typed it out.  Anyone shocked that Montreal was moved to DC?  No?  I digress.  In 2002 and 2003, Lee made 11 Major League starts, going 3-4 with a 3.30 ERA.  Not too shabby.  What could he do over a full season?

Well, he went 14-8 with a 5.43 ERA.  His record was a product of a Cleveland Indians team who scored a bunch of runs in his starts (about 5.6 per game).  Overall, he walked too many guys (a career high 81) and gave up too many hits to really be effective.

2005 would give us a glimpse into the future as Lee became the phenomenal pitcher we would all come to know.  He went 18-5 with a 3.79 ERA, walked 29 fewer hitters in 23 more innings, and dropped his WHIP from 1.5 to 1.2.  He’d finish 4th in the Cy Young voting and made us all wonder how good he could be.  Oddly enough, the winner of the 2005 Cy Young was none other than Mr. Bartolo Colon, but he didn’t win it for the Expos; he had moved on to the Angels by then.

In 2006, Lee returned to right around average, but he was still 27 years old so no one was concerned.  In fact, the Indians gave him a 3 year, $14 million dollar extension during that offseason.  That’s when disaster struck in 2007.

He began the year on the DL after a groin strain and then made 16 starts once he returned.  He posted 6.38 ERA with a 5-8 record.  He was booed off the mound in his July 26th start against Boston after surrendering 7 earned runs in only four innings.  He responded by sarcastically tipping his cap to the crowd; a gesture that was not well received.  The next day he was optioned to Triple A, where he would stay until roster expansion on September 1st.  He only made four relief appearances after that.

Presumably he made a deal with the devil during the 2006-2007 offseason because his 2007 season was one of the greatest ever in my lifetime.  That’s 25 years for those scoring at home.

He got a left arm that can pitch....I got his soul. Fair trade.

If anyone claims they saw that 2007 season coming, they’re lying.  Unless they’re the robot devil from Futurama, I guess.

In that historic season, Lee actually walked two less batters (34) than he did in 2006 (36) in 126 less innings.  Think about that.  He went to down to the minors to improve his control.  I think it worked out alright.  Lee won the Cy Young in a landslide over future teammate Roy Halladay. More importantly, he won over the owner of the Yellow Darts who would finish the year in the top three for the first time since joining the league two years before.

The love affair between The Yellow Darts and Lee continued in 2009 when he was traded to Philadelphia two days before the deadline.  All he did in Philly that year was lead them to a World Series appearance.  His stats, while down from the previous season, were still very, very good:  14-13, 3.22 ERA, 181 Ks.  That’s still Yellow Darts keeper material.

During the 2009 offseason he was traded again so Philadelphia could acquire Roy Halladay.  Lee took his talents to the Pacific Northwest to join Felix Hernandez and the Seattle Mariners.  He was as advertised for the M’s, going 8-3 with a 2.34 ERA and a 0.945 WHIP(!) in 16 starts.  But the best stat from Lee’s brief stint with Seattle is an 89/6 K/BB ratio.  He walked six guys in 103 innings.  Six.  He would strike out almost 15 batters for every one that he walked.  Those numbers are staggering.

Unfortunately, the Mariners were trying to win games without scoring any runs which is widely viewed as an ineffective strategy, so they quickly traded Lee to Texas.  This is where things get murky for the Darts.  Sure, Lee once again joined a team in the middle of the season and led them to World Series appearance but things may not have been what they seemed.

Lee started 15 games for the Rangers last year and posted a 3.98 ERA….or about a run higher than his previous few years combined.  In five more innings than he pitched for Seattle, Lee walked 12 batters.  Now that’s still a shockingly low number and 18 walks on the year is incredible, but I can’t ignore that two thirds of those walks came in the second half of the year.  It’s worth noting that his K/BB ratio ended up being 10.2/1.  Jered Weaver had the second best K/BB ratio that year at 4.3/1.

Lee would pitch well in the playoffs until he reached the World Series, where he was shelled by the San Francisco Giants.  His “troubles” would continue.

A free agent for the first time, Lee spurned the Rangers and the New York Yankees to sign with one of his former teams, the Philadelphia Phillies.  The deal was for five years and $120 million dollars.   So far, the now 33 year old Lee has made 12 starts going 4-5 with a 3.94 ERA.  He has already surpassed last year’s walk total in just 12 starts.  He walked six hitters in six and a third innings during a start in St. Louis.  Remember back when he walked six hitters in 103 innings?  The Yellow Darts do.

So dating back to last year’s trade deadline, Lee has made 27 regular season starts (almost a year’s worth) and has gone 8-11 with a 3.94 ERA.  He’s walking guys more often (back to pre-devil dealing days level) and is giving up more hits per nine innings.  Lee has never been a hard thrower so he relies on his impeccable control and change of speeds to get hitters out.  If he starts losing his control he’ll revert back to being an average to above average pitcher.  He is still striking out hitters at high rate, around 10 per nine innings.  His career K/9 rate, post devil dealings is 7.5.  So there’s that.

The Yellow Darts operate like the Braves did around the turn of the century.  It’s better to let a guy go a season too early than a season too late.  Am I crazy for thinking Lee isn’t quite the same pitcher has he was even a year ago?  Should I go ahead with my plan to pawn him off for one of the young star pitchers in the league?  I don’t think the luster has worn off Lee to anyone else just yet and no one in my league reads this blog so maybe I can pry someone away.

What say you, Probably-Not-So-Loyal-Anymore-Readers?  Trade or no trade?

6 Responses

  1. I’d say for the moment trade ! But I’d hate to see him then come back and perform at a really high level of consistency . It would make my original opinion seem foolish to say the very least .

    At present I’m salivating over the performances of the Braves’ Jair Jurrjens this season . After walking away from supporting the Marlins (for over a decade plus) after Loria’s lack of candidness I’ve now thrown my allegiance completely behind the Braves as a whole .

    tophatal ………..

    • I picked Jurrjens in the 19th round as a 6th starter in case someone got hurt. Needless to say, he’s been incredible so far. I’m not sure he’ll keep up this pace but I wouldn’t mind if he did.

  2. Hmmm, tough to say trade him. I plucked him off waivers during his magical Cy Young season. I wasn’t in a keeper league, but that was probably one of my best free agents I’ve ever picked up. Matt Joyce is trying to change that this year, but we’ll see about that!

    Would I trade Lee? Probably if you can get something good in return for him. If people don’t seem that pumped on him when you offer a couple of trades you might just have to ride it out though. Since it’s a keeper league maybe you can pry someone like Heyward away from someone since he’s been hurt a lot this year… Or maybe you can even get someone like Hanley. Sure he hasn’t been good this year, but you don’t just lose all your skills at 26.

    • I started high and went after Clayton Kershaw. That didn’t work.

  3. classic

    Jurrjens has a propensity to fall off and when real adversity is placed in front of him he tends to fold .

    tophatal ………..

  4. Nice try. If it is a keeper league, you should try to pick a team that’s close to the top so the trade looks better to them because they want to win now. Maybe they’ll give up some young hot shot. Then again it’s always tough to pry a solid keeper away from someone. I’d go for Pineda!

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